Poems Inspired by the 1727 New-England Primer
from a work in progress
The poems below are excerpts from a work in progress:
poems inspired by the 1727 New-England Primer. As a
fellow at the American Antiquarian Society, I had the
opportunity to study a rare copy of this primer. Famous for
its illustrated alphabet, the New-England Primer was
published in the millions over the course of 150 years—and
is, by our standards, a surprisingly dark text for young
readers. All of these excerpts are meant to reflect a 1727
point of view.
Is out of sight.
None but God is swifter than Eagles.
And the Mother trains her Young
to feast, by example, on Blood —
and where the slain are, there is she.
The Eye of the child who mocks his Father
and ignores the words of his Mother
the ravens of the valley shall pluck it out.
And the young eagles shall eat it.
This one, flat on the page
as a Bird on a Flag, spreads her wings
and looks to our left, Side sinister —
though in her mind she gazes right.
How inky each Feather, Talon, the little Crest
atop her head: God’s creation.
When will she return to Earth,
this careful Parent — her Nest
a messy pile of sticks
black as a Clot in its Tree?
An Account of Time
Our Days begin with Trouble here.
In an Hour are sixty Minutes.
Our life is but a span.
In one Day are twenty-four Hours.
And cruel Death is always near.
In one Week are seven Days.
So frail a thing is Man.
In one Month are four Weeks.
Then sow the seeds of Grace whilst Young
In one Year are three hundred sixty-five
That when thou com'st to die
Which are commonly divided into Months.
Thou mayst sing forth that Triumph song.
The Year is divided into four Quarters.
Death, where's thy Victory?
Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter.
whipt at School.
Marching at full speed down the page
is either the fool or the master
who beats him — in either a dunce’s cap,
its tip bent down, or the linen one
he slept in. A scholar’s robe — or nightshirt —
he wears for all to see.
And perhaps he cracks a whip,
though its angle is sharp, the line thick
as the bottom edge of a book
flung open — the cover making
a sideways V: a letter that otherwise
never appears in this alphabet.
Venial. Victor. Verily, who
is the punisher — who the fool?
And what is the weapon he wields?
Leviathan's backbone breaking the Surface —
the stone Wall crests, through failing Snowbank,
God's intent obeyed as the tide of March
Head and Tail, whatever Form they take,
hide in the Depths, each boulder in fields Beyond
white-capped. A fern preserved all Winter
floats up, seaweed on Rock, still green.
Rampant, damp —
bindweed, knotweed, thimbleweed,
A darning needle lights
on Queen Anne's lace, its pallor
marred by one drop of blood.
Male fern, summersweet,
Near the maiden-hair
buds of swamp candles spray,
ardent as sparks.
Three syllables allow
more sound—and discord: Abusing,
Drunkenness. But Godliness
and Holiness put in its place
the Impudent Kalender.
Four syllables offer advice:
with Ceremony. Discontented, we are—
despite examples given
let us think of our own
as words of five syllables
try to warn us: heed
Declaration, nay, Exhortation.
Fornication snares the unwary.
to turn the page:
In Adam's fall, we sinned.